Ex Libris: The Permanent Library
By Steve Donoghue
An old bookish friend of mine, compatriot at many a library book sale, used to have a clear organizational hierarchy for the books he acquired. If a title was utter garbage but still of some passing, nominal interest, he’d hold it at arm’s length and say, “I’ll only be keeping this for a year, then away it goes.”
If he found a more substantial book that was nevertheless a bit wide of the mark of his most passionate interests, he’d stuff it in his bag and say, “I’ll hold onto this one for 25 years.”
And if he found a bullseye title, something squarely in the zone of a deepest interest (in this case, Stonehenge, the Aztecs, or regional linguist histories), he’d sigh, tuck the book under his arm, and say, “This one I’m keeping for 50 years.” For most of the time he made these pronouncements, he was in his early 70s.
But it didn’t matter: I knew exactly what he meant. Some books you encounter out in the wild hold a very real but only very fleeting interest. I felt that same way, for instance, about Patricia Cornwell’s book “Portrait of a Killer,” in which she purported to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity. I’m a devoted amateur Ripperologist, so I wasn’t about to miss her book, but long before I reached the half-way mark, I knew she couldn’t tell a serial killer from a cereal box. I knew, in other words, that “Portrait of a Killer” wouldn’t be joining all the other Whitechapel books on my shelves. I’d read it, digest it, and then away it goes.
But other books come closer to the mark: the worthy but not-quite-brilliant biographies that swell the ranks of new releases every season, the dutiful but dull histories on subjects of deep interest, the earnest but bloated historical novels … the list is endless. These books aren’t bad. They’re of genuine interest, and they’ll probably serve for some kind of future reference. But they don’t ring the biggest bells in the tower.
And then there are the aforementioned bullseye titles! The authors, the subjects, the writing, the page count … when all the elements of a book line up to perfection, when even as I’m reading it for the first time, I know perfectly well it’s going into my permanent collection, well, that’s pure bookworm bliss. All readers have their own small (well, relatively small) coterie of topics and treatments (for me, friends have always joked that it’s “Dead Romans, dead Kennedys, and dogs”), what a much younger generation refers to as “auto buys.” When I encounter one of those, I just reflexively say “This one I’m keeping for 50 years.”
Absent a fair number of cybernetic enhancements that aren’t yet on the market, I’m not going to be prowling my personal library in 50 years, and I know that. But the feeling is still there, that special feeling of adding something to my permanent library, no matter how well I know how impermanent that library is.
It’s been on my mind in an odd way this past week. The news from the bookish world has been pretty bleak, dystopian stuff. Bowing to the demands of a “sensitivity reader” group’s polite recommendations (“Mighty nice publishing house you got here – be a shame if somethin’ were to happen to it”), Roald Dahl’s publisher and his literary estate agreed to censor his works in order to make them more faithfully conform to the politically correct phraseology and mind-set of the day. There was reader backlash, of course, since censorship is evil and ham-handedly changing beloved children’s books in order to please the 21st century Thought Police is a practice that should thoroughly repulse anybody who loves reading.
Reader backlash won’t matter (“Mighty nice publishing house you got here – be a shame if somethin’ were to happen to it”), but there was an element to the story that was if anything even more disturbing: the prospect that once these censored Dahl books exist, Amazon could simply swap them out for the versions people already have on their Kindles. You’d look for one of those older editions and find an “improved” version instead. Predictably, a whole bunch of readers were horrified by this idea.
And it’s not an isolated thing. News spread that the same kind of “sensitivity reader” group had gone after the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming, which are of course rife with louche and tasteless pieces of period prose and period attitudes. In addition to being an alcoholic casual killer, Bond is also a sexist, a racist, and a Colonel Blimp-style imperialist – so he’s a prime target for 21st century censors. If you look back at your digital copy of “Goldfinger” in a year, don’t be surprised to find Bond enjoying some avocado toast while watching MSNBC on his tablet.
That Orwellian element – that the censored versions of these books will just shimmer into the place where the real versions once were – has had me appreciating all my old-fashioned print-and-paper books more than I have in years. I’ve been a big fan of e-books, but these latest rounds of US censorship have made me more aware than ever of one humble fact: no fad or scold or threat can change the words in any of the books on my shelves. I think I’ll be keeping them all for 50 years – just in case.